Kirkersville Elementary has taken big steps to make sure Eli is side by side with his classmates.
Eli Guard’s first day of kindergarten was a challenge for his parents, Zac and Nichole.
“I was nervous, it’s hard for anybody. Sending your baby to kindergarten is quite emotional. People are taking care of them that aren’t us,” Nichole said.
Eli, who has spinal muscular atrophy, uses a wheelchair and his parents had spent months working with his teacher, Jake Toy, Kirkersville Elementary Principal Brad Wehrman and the Southwest Licking Local School District, to help everything go smoothly.
So they were relieved when Eli came home after his first day.
“It was awesome,” he told them.
“We are really grateful to them being willing to be approachable and accessible and willing to work with us,” she said.
Preparations for Eli’s first day at Kirkersville Elementary began over the summer, said Dan Davis, special education coordinator for Southwest Licking Schools.
“We met over the summer and just talked about what can we do to help Eli be right alongside his classmates,” Dan said. “Eli has given us a good challenge to think outside the box. He’s definitely paving the way for other students.”
One of the biggest changes was the construction of an accessible private bathroom with a large changing table so Eli and other students can have privacy while their personal needs were being met, Nichole said.
“It’s very respectful and we are super thankful,” she said.
The school also created a sensory room with equipment for physical and occupational therapy. It has a separate area for Eli and other students to do their stretching exercises.
“Now he has the option and independence to decide if he wants more privacy,” Nichole said.
In his classroom, Mr. Toy has created an open space with a variety of seating options, so Eli can drive around the room and participate in all their activities.
Eli can often be seen helping other students with group work and has made some great friendships, Mr. Toy said. For Halloween, the whole class dressed up as “101 Dalmatians” and Eli was the dog catcher.
“There is no where in the classroom where he isn’t able to go,” Mr. Toy said. “The kids simply like him because he’s Eli.”
During recess, Eli heads outside with his friends, where he likes Mr. Toy to push him high on the swings.
For Dan and Brad, it was important that the accessibility Eli found inside the school continued on the outside, despite the fact that the school’s playground is quite old.
They created an outdoor walking track, which looks like a city street with stop signs, traffic lights and other toys. Students are able to race alongside Eli on scooters and tricycles.
They also lowered a basketball hoop and added an accessible swing that Eli can roll up to, as well as some toys and games that Eli can use on the playground, using a ramp.
“A lot of our older playgrounds were not built with accessibility in mind,” Dan said. “We wanted to make sure he had multiple options. He came with his mom before school started and and tested it out.”
Recess is one of Eli’s favorite parts of school and his family is thrilled that Kirkersville understands how important it is for him to participate with his friends.
Nichole has been working to meet and mentor other parents in the area and is planning to create a podcast about accessibility. She’s hoping Eli’s story can inspire other schools and municipalities to see the value in making community spaces accessible to all children.
For Dan, the changes are a part of Southwest Licking’s district-wide effort to rethink how they envision inclusion.
“Eli is so independent and always on the go and that made us step it up to another level,” he said. “This will be great for future students.”